Goldenrod and Asters

This article by Rhonda Fleming Haye originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Northern Gardener.

Salt and pepper. Batman and Robin. Spaghetti and meatballs. Rhythm and blues. Goldenrod and asters. What?

Allow me some alliteration when I say goldenrod and asters are a perfect pairing of powerhouse plants for pollinators.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2013), writes of applying to be a botany major. Hoping to impress the professor, she told him she wanted to learn why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together. He responded that beauty is not the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves. Kimmerer went on to study botany but struggled to reconcile its limitations in relation to the indigenous teachings about plants that were so important to her as well.

“If a fountain could jet bouquets of chrome yellow in dazzling arches of chrysanthemum fireworks, that would be Canada goldenrod,” she writes. “Each 3-foot stem is a geyser of tiny gold daisies, ladylike in miniature, exuberant en masse. Where the soil is damp enough, they stand side by side with their perfect counterpart, New England asters. Not the pale domesticates of the perennial border, the weak sauce of lavender or sky blue, but full-on royal purple that would make a violet shrink. The daisylike fringe of purple petals surrounds a disc as bright as the sun at high noon, a golden-orange pool, just a tantalizing shade darker than the surrounding goldenrod. Alone, each is a botanical superlative. Together, the visual effect is stunning. Purple and gold, the heraldic colors of the king and queen of the meadow, a regal procession in complementary colors. I just wanted to know why.”

Before such poetry, I wilt. But from a pragmatic view, goldenrod and asters are an invaluable resource for bees, butterflies and other insects as autumn approaches. Honeybees bulk up on the copious nectar in anticipation of winter; native bees such as bumblebees, digger bees and leafcutter bees gobble the pollen and nectar to provision late-season nests or to fatten up for winter dormancy. A number of butterfly and moth species that have already utilized its foliage as host plant during summer will also feed upon it.

Goldenrod and asters are much like milkweed in that they create a community; beyond the bees and butterflies you’ll find syrphid flies, beetles and many other insects. Goldfinches, tree sparrows, prairie chickens and wild turkeys eat the seeds, while rabbits and deer will browse the foliage.

There are plenty of goldenrod and aster species to accommodate the conditions specific to your garden, whether damp or dry, sunny or shady.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) has large, feathery, golden plumes atop reddish stems. It blooms later than other goldenrods but is worth the wait. Full to partial sun, tolerates dry soil once established.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) has large, flat clusters of yellow flowers, with red foliage in the fall. Full to partial sun, it adapts to all types of soil. It does re-seed! Deadhead to contain this if needed.

Zig zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) has smaller flowers that, as the name says, zig and zag up the stem with large flat leaves. This is one for partial sun to shade. It tolerates wetter soils. It can be aggressive; use with caution in small gardens.

There are lots of goldenrod cultivars available too, such as ‘Fireworks’, ‘Little Lemon’ and ‘Crown of Rays’ that may be better suited to small gardens.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) has rich purple flowers and almost orange centers. It’s a late bloomer that tolerates a variety of conditions.

Silky aster (Symphyotrichum sercieum) has soft silver-green foliage that is attractive on its own. The lavender flowers are looser in structure and very prolific. At only 12 inches tall, it is smaller than other asters. Full to partial sun, medium to drier soils.

Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) has light purple flowers with bright yellow centers. The flowers redden as they mature.

It is one of the last asters to bloom in fall. The foliage has a distinct fragrance when crushed. It likes sun and soil on the drier side but can adapt to medium conditions.

‘October Skies’, ‘Wood’s Blue’ and ‘Purple Dome’ are also popular cultivars, with many others ranging from purple, blue, leaning to lavender and pink.

I’ll let Robin Wall Kimmerer close with these thoughts:

“There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of two worlds; the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers—to drink the nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds; there is just this one good green earth.”

Minneapolis-based Rhonda Fleming Hayes is the author of Pollinator Friendly Gardening (Voyageur Press, 2016).

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